ATHENS, Greece -- Take heart, Larry Brown. Yours is not the
sole face of frustration at an Olympic basketball tournament that's
shaping up as the most compelling since 1988.
The Americans aren't the only ones struggling in Athens.
The defending world champions from Serbia-Montenegro have lost three of their four games, Yao Ming's teammates on the
Chinese team are having trouble getting the ball past midcourt, and
Angola's losing streak is at eight years and counting.
Two of Serbia-Montenegro's losses came in the final seconds to
New Zealand and Argentina, and a third happened Saturday -- 76-68 to
Spain. The team sure could use NBA star Peja Stojakovic, who
decided against coming to the Athens Games.
"They've got their own worries, we've got ours,'' New Zealand's
Sean Marks said after his team beat Serbia-Montenegro 90-87.
While folks in America have been fretting over their team's
failure against Puerto Rico and difficulties against Greece and
Australia, fans in Belgrade and Beijing have done some
head-scratching over their nations' shortcomings, too.
Serbia-Montenegro is 1-3 and China is 1-2 in Group B -- the more
difficult of the two -- and both are in danger of failing to make it
out of the preliminary round. Only a last-second miss by Italy has
kept Serbia-Montenegro from being 0-4.
"Nothing has happened with the world champions. It's just that
we lost two games by a point,'' said Serbia-Montenegro forward
Dejan Bodiroga, widely considered the best pro player in Europe.
"Now we turn to further games, and we will fight until the end.''
The only remaining unbeaten teams are Spain and Lithuania.
But while Lithuania had two closer-than-expected victories over
Angola and Puerto Rico, Pau Gasol and his mates from Madrid have
knocked off each of their opponents impressively, defeating China
by 25, Argentina by 11 and Italy and Serbia-Montenegro by eight
"We played against the team that proved to be the best so far
in our group,'' Italy coach Carlo Recalcati said.
Spain coach Mario Pesquera cautioned that his team wasn't
necessarily the best, despite its strong start.
"Maybe we've been able to prove so far we are a little above
them,'' he said, "but I don't think this is anything definitive.''
The top four teams from each group advance to the quarterfinals,
and ties involving more than two teams are broken based upon point
differential in the games between them.
For the United States, that's what makes their 19-point loss to
Puerto Rico potentially problematic. If the Americans lose to
Lithuania on Saturday and defeat Angola on Monday, they could end
up in a three-way tie for second place in Group A with Puerto Rico
and Greece or Australia.
Since the Greeks defeated Australia by 22, and the Americans
beat Greece by just six and Australia by 10, the math could work
against them and drop them to fourth place in Group A -- which would
mean a quarterfinal matchup with the top team from Group B.
The United States also could finish third in Group A even if it
defeats Lithuania because of the point-differential formula in the
event of a three-way tie between America, Lithuania and Puerto Rico
(3-1), which defeated Australia 87-82 Saturday.
Lithuania nearly beat the Americans four years ago in the
semifinals in Sydney, and the player whose last-second 3-pointer
would have won that game, Sarunas Jasikevicius, will finally have a
chance to avenge the defeat that has become his career-defining
"This is today, and that's what we worry about. That was the
past,'' teammate Darius Songaila said. "With every game we've been
playing better and better, and I hope we can keep this up.''
One Group B team that can lock up a quarterfinal berth Saturday
is Argentina, which played its best game of the tournament Thursday
night in a dominating 82-57 victory over China.
Using a full-court press in which three defenders denied the
inbounds pass to China's two overmatched guards, the Argentines
repeatedly prevented the ball from crossing midcourt, where Yao
could get his hands on it.
The 7-foot-6 center was again visibly angry at his teammates'
ineptitude, and coach Del Harris was a picture of depression and
resignation after the lopsided loss.
"Coming in here, I really thought we'd be a lot better,'' he
At least Harris has plenty of company.
Brown, Bodiroga and others thought the same thing, too.